As the Vancouver Canucks continue recovering from one of the worst COVID-19 outbreaks in professional sports, a different group of B.C. hockey players are celebrating their ability to evade a similar fate now that their strangest-ever hockey season has come to end.
The Whistler Minor Hockey Association (WMHA) wrapped up its 2020-21 season last month—just prior to the public health order closing down Whistler Blackcomb amidst a third wave of spiking cases in Whistler.
As players hang up their skates for the summer, “We’re experiencing a lot of appreciation; people generally understand what a challenging year it was, how hard it was, and how much extra work was involved,” said WMHA president Joe Baker. “People are just expressing a lot of gratitude that through it all, we were able to compete some, as much as we were permitted to, but that throughout the season we were able to keep all the kids on the ice.”
He added, “I don’t think we had a single transmission inside of hockey activities. We had a few teams that needed players to take a break, but generally, we were feeling over the course of the year that being on the ice with your teammates inside of a Whistler Minor Hockey program was probably one of the safest places to be.”
The safety protocols that allowed for a hockey season to take place didn’t just benefit the players’ collective physical health, either.
“The mental health aspect for the kids and the activity level; the social aspects for the kids was super important, so I’m glad we were able to deliver it,” Baker said.
Delivering a season at all was a monumental effort. After the 2019-20 hockey season came to an abrupt end due to the onslaught of the coronavirus pandemic, hockey associations across B.C. worked tirelessly to plan a season that would allow young hockey players to compete and continue developing without sacrificing safety. At first, that achievement came in the form of “cohorts,” made up of four teams from competing associations, Baker explained.
Last summer, “[The Pacific Coast Amateur Hockey Association's return to play committee] came up with this brilliant schedule where we’d play inter-cohort teams, take a two-week break consistent with the protocol, reconfigure those teams and then play in a new cohort,” he explained. “It would be a season that wouldn’t have a championship or league standings, but the kids would be able to play hockey against other teams in the city—and that worked for a while.”
The prospect of getting to compete against other teams again was exciting, said Baker’s son Sam, who played this season for the Sea to Sky Bears Bantam A2 team. “I was looking forward to it because I hadn’t played in an actual league format for the whole summer so I was excited to get back into it.”
But merely a few weeks into the hockey season, cases began spiking again, prompting B.C. public health officials to issue orders banning competition and travel for the purpose of sport—forcing the WMHA to reconfigure yet again.
Recalled WMHA secretary Louise Tomcheck, “I think the change happened early enough in the season that there was still that energy to keep going.” The local association eventually developed a strategy for fun, intramural games between Whistler teams that wouldn’t normally face off against each other—until even that level of contact was again deemed a no-go by the province.
The intramural games only lasted about a week until new safety protocols restricted hockey to physically distanced practices only.
At the time, “I was hoping that [games] might eventually come back,” Sam added. “I was happy we were still playing, but it sucked that we couldn’t keep playing competitively against other teams.”
Rather than games, local teams ended out the season with a series of flow drills that allowed athletes to maintain a three-metre distance at all times while on the ice. The rules saw Whistler’s hockey teams spend the remainder of the season practising skills like passing and break-outs, while other important aspects of the game like body-checking were completely off the table.
“It’s hard because [hockey] is a contact sport, but I think we did a good job of staying distanced,” Sam explained. “But it was really weird, because a lot of drills we couldn’t do because there was too much contact.”
Even with that weirdness, Sam acknowledged how grateful he was for the social aspect, physical activity and sense of normalcy that ice time was able to provide this winter.
“The only three places I was seeing my friends were at school, on the ski hill and at hockey,” he explained. “It’s a big part of my life and it was really good to have it.”
In a surprising win, the association also saw its participation grow this year, rather than take the 10- to 20-per-cent dip in registration that WMHA executives had expected heading into the winter. Baker credits those gains partly to the addition of a second girls’ squad, following the successful introduction of a female-only atom program in 2019.
“This year we went to atom and peewee, and we’ve seen a real strong growth out of those two programs,” he said. “So part of [the overall growth] was people looking for pandemic activities—they were limited and we were one of the organizations that were able to deliver them—and then the second [reason] was that we are growing our membership organically, because we have a lot of keen young female players who want to play on teams with their friends.”
Throughout all of the challenges, adjustments and adaptations the association underwent this winter, Baker and Tomcheck agree the hockey season was ultimately a success.
The triumph of finishing out a full season, even one that involved minimal competition, can be credited to teamwork, Tomcheck said, citing unprecedented cooperation between various hockey associations throughout the Lower Mainland and with the Resort Municipality of Whistler to repeatedly reconfigure Meadow Park’s arena set-up to be the safest possible.
“When you work as a team, things work,” she explained. “When everybody does their part, there’s always a way to win. There was always some way we could [come up with an idea] to keep this going and we did that very successfully for the entire season.”